New Zealand is famous for its award-winning wines, but now the country’s first and only sake brewery is making a name for itself on the world stage.

Located in the hills behind Queenstown’s bustling city center, Zenkuro Sake has only been in business for three years, but has already taken home gold and silver awards at the prestigious London Sake Challenge.

Only two breweries outside of Japan took home prizes, making the young company’s success particularly impressive. The secret to their award-winning beverage, according to head brewer David Joll, is Queenstown’s water.

“The water here is incredibly soft,” explains Joll, 55. “For example, Queenstown water has almost no chlorine. It’s essential to have a little (chlorine) when making sake, for the yeast, but having a smaller amount allows for a slower fermentation process.”

Having first visited Japan on a six-month exchange when he was 17, Joll has long admired Japanese culture and sake.

Together with his two Queenstown-based business partners, Richard Ryall, 54, and Craig MacLachlan, 55, the team at Zenkuro are all Japanophiles. All three have lived and worked in Japan, are fluent in the language and are no strangers to turning their passions into a business.

As well as Zenkuro Sake, the three men have run, for almost 25 years, a New Zealand-based tour company specializing in taking Japanese travelers on hiking tours around Queenstown. Ryall and MacLachlan have also co-authored a Lonely Planet guide to hiking in Japan.

However, Joll says that as age began to creep up on them, the partners decided to pursue a less adventurous business venture and made contact with an old friend, Yoshihiro Kawamura, 41, owner of the YK3 Sake brewery in Vancouver, Canada.

“Originally, Yoshi wanted to start a brewery in New Zealand, but after the Christchurch earthquake, the timing wasn’t right to start a new business,” Joll says, referring to the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck in 2011.

Kawamura, who is also an executive committee member of the Japan New Zealand Business Council, has since joined as the fourth co-owner of Zenkuro.

Once the foursome were all on board, Joll spent time living and working at Kawamura’s brewery in Canada as well as the Yoshikubo Sake Brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture, learning to what it takes to become a head brewer.

Sake, or nihonshu as it is known as in Japan, is made from rice, water, yeast and a rice mold called kōji. But despite its simple ingredient list, the road to an award-winning sake was not easy.

“Originally, we couldn’t get our hands on any (sake) yeast,” Joll says, explaining that the brewery experimented with bread, beer and wine yeast, but with no success: “Kōji is controlled by the Japan Sake Brewers Association so the general public can’t buy it. You have to be a member.”

Although Zenkuro will officially receive its membership in April this year, Ryall jokes that obtaining good-quality yeast had been like a “drug trade” up until now.

Similarly, rice from Japan that is bred specifically for making sake is planted-to-order, meaning brewers must order a season in advance. Previously, Zenkuro made sake using American-grown rice, but will soon only be using Japanese rice grown in Toyama and Hyogo prefectures. “We really love Japan (so) we want to use Japanese ingredients where we can,” Joll says.

But the team at Zenkuro also add a special New Zealand twist to their recipe.

The brewery mixes their vats of fermenting rice mash — called moromi — with a stirrer made from the wood of a manuka myrtle, a tree native to New Zealand that is famous for its medicinal properties.

“Manuka is full of vitamins and nutrients. The stirrer is left in the vats for almost a month, so as we stir the moromi the nutrients ooze out,” Joll says.

When it comes time to press the sake — separating the alcohol from the unfermented rice solids — Joll uses New Zealand green stones to weigh down a stainless-steel plate, gently squeezing the sake-filled canvas bags below.

The brewery’s brand, “Zenkuro,” is a subtle hat tip to the trio’s love of their national rugby team, the All Blacks. “Zen” translates to “completely” or “all,” while “kuro” is Japanese for “black.”

Joll and his team are hoping to use the Rugby World Cup in 2019 to make Zenkuro’s entry into the Japanese market.

“The rugby team already have their own sponsors, but we’d like to show our support one way or another,” he says.

Regardless of how the All Blacks and Zenkuro perform next year, Joll is excited for the future.

“I’ve finally found what I want I love doing in life,” he says.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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